by Milton Kessler
Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 1963
Copyright © 1963 by the Ohio State University Press
All Rights Reserved
Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number: 62-19882
Digitized by the Internet Archive
Some of the poems in this collection have appeared in, or
are scheduled to appear in, the following publications. The
kind permission of the editors to reprint them here is grate-
The Galley Sail Review
The Western Humanities Review
That Sunday / 17
Second Conception / 18
To Paul, for the Passage / 19
The El-Painter's Daughter / 20
The Squatters / 21
The Game / 22
The Sea's Last Gift / 24
Anniversary Poem / 26
Beyond Anguish / 29
Hymn to the Rain / 30
Dawn Sickness / 3 1
The Lynching / 32
Route 40— Ohio, U. S. A. / 33
A Road Came Once / 34
None Will Know / 36
After the Novocaine He Stared Into
the Dentist's Lamp and Thought / 37
The Stages / 38
The Long Friends / 43
In the Tranquility of Decomposition / 44
Geppetto's Guilt / 46
An Instant of Water / 47
Parable / 48
The Clerk Retires / 51
The Center / 53
A String of Dust / 55
For the thing which I greatly feared
is come upon me, and that which I was
afraid of is come unto me.
I was not in safety, neither had I rest,
neither was I quiet; yet trouble came.
— Job. 3:25-26
when the frost came,
it was over.
In the gale
the branches fractured.
at the doorway.
Ice on the shoulder.
He stood at the window.
In the barbed nets
of bloodless trees,
the sun was dying.
He turned away.
But in his room
of cretonne chairs,
his son was ill,
his wife raged,
and the walls
were choking with flowers.
It is the time when feet are silent,
When skin forgets the scrape of wind.
The sun warms the eye asleep;
Chairs drowse like invalids at noon.
We, now decided, legs together,
Dream a cry, then break the solid seed and say:
O soft son, by four hands held together,
You, sleeping now in your cool dominion,
Forgive, forgive us, never.
To Paul, for the Passagt
Paul, father, to have known you,
to have seen you wince and turn your head,
to have shared your table, to have seen
your secret dignity, your candleflame of pride,
live in the dim corners, with papers and radios,
in hallways and hospitals, was to have ascended
a Zion of vision. To have seen
your cancered hope survive, father of quiet joys,
of walks and lovely faces, what other miracle
can we know in life, we, the insignificant,
the congregation of subway faces.
Paul, father, there are only a few of us;
we are a small family, but we are enough.
We have shared a troubled life;
there has been little time for peace.
Now rest. It is a beautiful day.
The grass is not cold.
The ground is alive.
The El-Painters Daughta
The IRT, racing the noon,
made Moira's pigeons, tearing her crumbs,
quail to a wing. . . .
Now she walked to the place
where the El-Painter, orange matted,
lurching in sleep, gargoyled the base
of a rusted girder.
He shook on his side, a drunken dreamer.
Paint spooled down like toxic honey,
brocading the quivering hand of her father. . . .
She sucked the dissolving lime of her ices,
and turned from the darkening lovestains of paint,
as he woke.
All week the wreckers disembowel the street;
a hundred years of faces shake to sand.
The concrete trudgeon takes their breath away;
they cough the plaster on their splintered porch,
"Go in," he says, "the air is bad today."
Inside, they smell the orange heater-gas,
the drafts that flush and rash their son to chills.
Another building stumbles to its mouth. . . .
The mirror sways; it brings him to the wall —
all fractured glass, asthmatic, rotting tooth,
a jell-eyed, balding thirty.
Yet, still a child, he hugs against his wife;
and as they walk their cubicles like ghosts,
his nine month cloistered fetus, jarred,
leans forward, blue, and prayerfully.
Ten thousand cars are muzzled in the lot.
We move like some dazed serpent entering a dream.
Streets are empty; infants know their way,
drifting red balloons into that glare
where eighty thousand faces breathe today.
The Buckeyes are odds-on to croak the Frogs.
Lusty afternoon, skywriter's blue,
a father hugs his pillow, scars and pride,
memory of muscle long gone dry, and sweats
within his pants like any boy. "Time Time,"
the tubas boom their say; cheerleaders hush
to breasts of scarlet, gray — tensely, reverently,
the Anthem, the Song — swelling with their clothing
into space. "Time, O time," the father sighs,
as banners whip, crack above his head.
. . . and into the coliseum raging
like bulls in Pamplona, a stampede of heroes;
and his son, "my powerhouse, a great boy, handsome
not moody — wonderful smile," there, somewhere,
pawing the grass in terror, virginal,
mothered by his uniform; so brave . . .
until that quarter when his bones dissolve
with all of space exploding in his groin.
The teams wheel. The crowd roars. Silence murmurs:
"Whose body bandages the field?" Murmurs:
"O father, bring sweet water from our stream
cool my cracked mouth with your great hands
keep our blood from splashing in my brain
no scar can know my face, your name."
The Seas Last Gift
The pain of yes
and something beginning:
Two forms whimper at a pond's edge;
a wild rose brims with yearning, spills;
seed and tendril swell;
the winds caress an embryo's dilation;
and cool in the green musk of dawn
she turns, woeful as an injured dancer,
a lily in her first fondling,
to a naked boy
tremulous with knowing.
O wonderful wonderful!
Yet too wonderful. . . .
A bloodstain desecrates an egg.
Her breast removed, the cell panics;
her mind dies, the soul's aftermath.
And the other one (thorns are my eyes),
must he ever be a cart for stones?
O brother of Job,
has time a father,
are all fallings graveward?
Softly. It is not your universe.
Your family wants; the beach is ready.
Go to the water. Reason. Rest.
Your family wants, your family, your.
An ailing pedant I have walked these walls,
a moth alone in a dream's projection.
My skull's three ages breathe apart,
each for its wound, its shape of sky, its lover.
It weeps. Which child am I? Perhaps? Try?
Inflate a balloon. Cradle your face against it.
The warm, rubbery smell, the female softness
A heaviness rises, trembles my sill . . .
O mother of union, I fall! I fall!
When I came out
into blessings of salt air
it was a painters morning.
The beach had a bowl's truth.
Here my child created valleys,
my wife combed herself a girl;
and (the sea's last gift)
Macy shirt wind-swelled to a hump,
chewing the frizzled stump
of his Phillies,
my vacationing father,
in lisle socks
and night-shift pallor,
fighting sand, the gull
of his World-Telegram,
the rash of Indian summer,
was irritable, alien,
off-season in a rented beach-chair.
We raged again last night.
Your wail pierced my skull
until my tongue was
bloodless, white, and locked
against my teeth like stone.
In a whale's panic, I shook,
struck, broke your sound.
Then we lay breathless,
grotesque, like swollen puppets.
Last night, we made another son.
Today, cool, affecting ease,
we walk, tall as our skeletons.
Yet, beautiful are these bones;
in the body of our son see them.
And for the loneliness
that we still share in pain,
and for the face
that you have given him,
I, fleshed and hairless,
my own father now,
give you my boyhood still.
What if it tempt you toward
the flood, my lord?
— Hamlet, Act I, scene 5
At dawn, caught beneath the rim of light,
it fled into a place still black,
tore its side upon a nail,
and bled small robes upon the snow.
Then rain came, and fever, then cold
and the long cool drowse.
It slept to death within the cling of ice,
curled on its side in fetal dreaming.
At evening, when cobblestones shiver,
and every path has a figure,
the dead leaves jump in a flash of wind,
the trees are black with holding on.
And here in the snow he finds it,
under a window of laughing faces.
He thinks it is a child stillborn.
In anguish, he follows his own breath home.
But this night, the air changes, the bird comes,
men gather to smell the springtime.
And warm with thaw the gray fur shifts
equal in wind with the yellow grass.
Hymn to the Rain
This day is glorious with rain.
Men sift for home in mist
To sing from windows, deep as graves,
Their sea-bird hymns.
This day is glorious with rain.
Women break their witches' knots
And go within to lamps and bread.
Now the benches are cleansed;
The dowager elms
Bow down with reverence.
this day is glorious with rain.
1 cannot vulture in my books today.
I must warm the salt-sea with my bones.
I will run beneath the blackest cloud;
There will I lie, with the youngest grasses,
And lick the nipples of rain.
She watches the moon succumb to morning,
Lake-sounds chilling the wooded silence.
Out of the water smoke-shapes drift.
Then rain comes, beating the leaves.
Again she reads in a brown chair,
Her lamp aging in daylight.
I will read time blind, she says.
A wind comes from a dark garden;
Her pages turn as dying faces.
I alone know the blue bulb rising.
Do I alone hear my cell dividing?
In the lake a drowned log swells.
1 will read time blind, she says, I will!
Dragged through doorways of fragrance
Dense as embalmer's perfume, Parker,
Wounds deep as blossoms,
Died beneath magnolia.
He fell; then sky was
Grass, and the flash of quartz in stone.
Blood soured; the cage was not enough.
They hacked the white bones through.
Tonight, in Poplarville,
The rain dies at the eaves;
Leaves fall face-downward;
The hill-shacks breathe on their stones;
Porches sag like lips
Tasting blood in their corners;
And three men sit on a fence
Only their odors alive.
But it happened, then, there,
With flowers: jasmine, lily, magnolia;
And by the smell of flowers
He knew the place.
Now, beneath birds,
Licked by the water's drifting mold,
Parker, skin bleaching white,
Swells in the Pearl River.
Route 40— Ohio, USA.
It is dark now.
Nets of snow
Tumble about us.
We slide like fish,
The road dissolving.
And in the fields
The farmlights chant:
You have no land —
You have no land.
A Road Came Once
The gravel felt the wall's decay,
Nerves of rot, exposed, spreading.
The ceiling, mouth open,
Inhaled a continent of prairie dust,
And, in the west,
A cloud hung down its tentacle of storm.
Sitting where the door was
She focused on the wind.
The wind knew that she was naked.
Starved, her chest unfleshed,
She nursed her hleached-pehhle son.
Inside, where the flies were,
A farmer, mold in his mouth,
Fused to the table, dead as statuary.
Sitting where the door was,
Her breast now dry,
Her mouth hymning its own last song,
She watched the steel wind rape the grass.
Elsewhere in the Gallery, luncheon is being served.
The matrons sit on white filigree chairs;
They speak the chime of crystal refinement.
The birches sway; the fountains are soothing as sighs.
Yet, it is quite certain, here,
Where the vulture flaps
In the skull of the house,
That a road came once,
Through the crippled grass,
To the crest of that hill
Where they crouch.
IS! one Will Know
Past glaciers of chrome, glassed cabinets, tile,
by lavender tumors, drifting in jars,
through ghosts of nurses, partitions, doors,
what brought you reader, you
at peace in your brown chair?
Yet come brave man. . . .
It is four after midnight,
his hallway blind,
his bed aflame with urine;
beneath the lamp his water dies.
Come closer. His face is made of screaming mouths,
but every tongue is paralyzed. Now gently, hold him;
none will know. His soul shall magnify you.
After the Novocaine He Stared
Into the Dentist's Lamp and Thought
Another nerve dies;
my pain bites flat.
I cry beneath sound
with the inward mouth.
I knew the way back,
but where shall I go
in the land of numb?
Shall I seek in a high,
in a froth of wheels
or a nest of skin?
Shall I worship the calm
or the howl of In?
I'll go to the water
where ice-wind hurts;
I'll find stiff birds
on slabs of sand;
The wind comes,
old in time,
young in killing;
Til write love,
Believe me. Say nothing.
I can do without these voices,
this cemetery of images, delusions.
to touch a face, to feel her life
breathing in my palms. For days
1 have been rigid in this chair.
If I could only shut the radio,
or touch my lips to water. Are the rats
in the Charles today? Say nothing.
This pencil kills my dying.
and the park is troubled;
the blind lamp sorrows the path.
Even the coalheaver worries;
the whore, fondly, smothers him with rouge.
As I pass, a tramp rises.
I confess, I am cowed by beggars;
his hand made the fences fade.
Above a locked door the sign cries Eat.
Sitting, I look at my hands. I am a classic:
The ragged nails, sores, infected cuticles,
the blue, puffy, unused palms.
Money, money, I mutter, listening to the fountain.
Will anyone die for me?
a brook alive, waking,
roots, wetting their lips,
the leaves, kissing their creatures . . .
Wait! The birds have something to give.
I feel queer. It is so easy.
Nothing in the city, but a dungeon's freedom.
There, in the clearing, beneath the lids,
without forcing, I can hear the birches sway.
I really can. They are like music,
like white nuns on a hillside of flowers.
The marsh opens, everything whispers;
in the soft, moss-quiet, somewhere,
dreaming, gold-moth descending, I remember.
The soil moves; the earth is breathing
in my hollow place, still breathing.
The Long Friend*
She finds a brilliant in a waste of sand;
With dignity she sanctifies the stone.
Her face is cradled in the lap of moss;
The grass is cool as her mothers hand.
With gentleness she reads a fern.
She listens to a moving worm.
Come to me worm, she says.
She mumbles it forward.
In the Tranquility of Decomposition
How still the air is;
I can hear the books breathing.
How still the reader, sleeping.
My book is a frozen fruit;
It cracks as I open it.
She stirs, adjusts a leg.
Through a window,
Clean as silence,
Autumn drifts in amber.
"The quadrangle trees,
Shorn to nerves,
Desire, a whirlpool of birds."
"The brood of halls,
Stiff with cold,
Naked of leaves,
Obscene with hair,
As a chain of stone."
Is the amber melting?
A bell tolls a tongue into the world.
Her face is running with folds;
Lurching in the sheets of dreams
She is exposed.
"Now the orphaned leaves are rising
As warriors on pyres.
They will bow away to ashes. . . <
She wakes to go.
Her eyes are veined with shock.
Relieved, she shuts the door
That seals my tomb.
On sand steep as an unstrung jaw
Hung bird and I in puppet balance.
Its clogged feet drooped as broken wrists.
I snapped a stone at its onyx eye
Locked in my soul, a festered pearl.
One wing twitched in anticipation.
With tears of sand I bled my debt;
I limped to the wings on wooden joints;
I held its warmth in my frigid hands;
I gave its head the grave of my arms.
Then the neck curled down like a burning twig.
The white wing went brittle and rigid.
Sand slobbered with foam, a drowned man's mouth.
I hung in a hollow glutted with surf.
Then beneath me the waters rose as a wind,
And I twisted with tide through shell and weed.
The sun wove red through the ocean's eye.
A black gull squealed as it went to sea.
An Instant of Water
Remember me, O father of beachcombers;
Tonight I walk beneath sea-sky.
Provide, for my rim is smooth
Teeth biting inward, I'm sleek as a fin;
1*11 enter without ripples.
Below, the shells call,
Hollow as abandoned bells.
Downward the crabs move like crippled hands.
I, kissed alive by the mouths of fish,
Follow the downward swim of eels.
The ocean is brown here.
In the underswellings,
By the gusts of inner silt,
My sharks are saddened.
Mine is the free sway of kelp.
But my edges ache.
The screen jumps like a lung;
I hear the powdery lunge of a moth.
I wake with a red pain,
My head on a sea-gray table.
In the season of the mother wave
The diamond candled fish rise
Out of the ebon of the undersea
As moons through braided vapors.
Cool is the sea on their emerald eyes
As they shimmer forth to the wave's wide hollow.
Seen as an eel in the eye of the sun
The mother wave rolls like spayed whales
Yoked by the ache of the bud undone
Fierce toward the blade of the coral reef.
In the moment of the mother wave
The diamond candled fish rise
Into the ebon of the primal womb
As suns through lunar caverns.
Warm is the foam on their lucent eyes
And they swell as seeds in the wave's wide hollow.
But over the spine of the crippled shoals
Down on the blade of the coral reef
Splintered the wave as a shattered globe
Splitting the bulb back to the nub
Loosing the fish back to the sea.
What is man, or the son of man,
What is man, O Lord, what is man?
-from a Jewish service for the dead
The Clerk Retires
Fog infects the entrance of the house,
suffocates the lights like summer flies.
Sick, he breathes the pallid city dawn,
trembles like an ancient closet-moth,
incapable and blind.
Now he rubs
the smoothness of his hands, listens
to the knock of heat in walls, and chants:
I have fingered forty years of letters,
written picture postcards in the summers;
now I'll sing; 111 do many things.
Then he closed the shades, and dressed,
washed his hands again, and left, fresh
as a turned collar. Avoiding ice,
he took the alley, followed by dogs,
and went downtown.
In the subway, the breast of a shop-girl
touched him. He could feel it, there,
against his arm. It was the first time
in years. He felt sick, then, standing
in an overcoat and rubbers.
At the cafeteria, the same strangers sat
four to a table, quiet, as if in separate grief.
He had a good seat. He could see, in the window,
the paper garden. Flowers leaned, in the glare,
painfully, awkwardly, like ghosts of his mother.
but there was no work that day. He walked.
The traffic drenched his feet with cold.
He went to the lunch-place, too early;
without the others, they never knew his face.
Stiff, ashamed, a small man at the edge of a chair,
he ate another breakfast.
The reading room was warm. He slept,
in magazines and papers, all day.
Time to go home, the guard said.
He woke, feverish, still
in his overcoat and rubbers.
He went to the washroom.
The icy water was too wonderful.
He died there.
Last night she went wading,
water hugs flocking before her,
white butterflies running on wings,
water bubbling between her;
in a rapture of weeds,
her back on the moss,
She leaned, spilling bitterness,
the house on her neck, diapers, the dog's leavings,
nights of frustration beneath the crucifix;
wed, gray forty, trapped. Fear swam her soul —
rats in a dark river. It was noon.
Thank god for the movies;
they never failed her.
This morning, inwardly howling,
he leaned on the sink, hearing the drain,
deaf to her martyrdom.
But here in the grace of cathedral glass
the air is ancient and cool.
Here the world is a great sea-cave. He rested.
Beautiful robes of air touched him.
The shadow of St. Joseph touched him.
Again he was fisherman, aflame with ropeburns,
and the surf bathed him like psalms.
And floating above snakeplants,
profile going, returning,
one hand bandaged by a rosary,
one leg still going —
his porch rocker ticking —
the boat rocking, she, his mother,
felt spray, nets,
salt on her lips.
One Hour Later
In the common grave
of a project's foundation,
the shovel fell, a spike of pain
He was a long time, turning slowly,
a fish in shallows, a curtain breathing;
there was no space or shape; flies rose;
dust came down.
It was a long time, slowly turning;
the grass was sand, the leaves anointed.
Was it morning? His mouth and eyes were wet.
He saw the perfect oval of the sky;
a row of girders formed in perpendicular;
the curving symmetry of abstract faces;
the Cross and Cassock in the center.
A String of Dust
Hands like lizards,
puffing like carp,
it is an old Jew,
Isaac his name.
Propped at a window,
mouth wetting the pillow,
he dreams of sabbath leisure on the stoops,
of the last wail of the dead Chazan,
of Abie the idiot whom the children loved.
He tastes again the sabbath bread;
it is so delicious it makes him tremble.
He thinks: Is here, Isaac, far from Dachau;
his eyes will soon be full with earth.
He weeps. Across the street
a vacant store, his nameless grocery
fallen to dust, is scraped and plucked
clean as a chicken. Then the cold night comes.
Under the streetlights, crossing shadows,
the pushcarts take their peddlers home.
We feed him,
rearrange his pillows,
rub his blue legs warm;
we turn his nakedness
toward the lamp,
and close the door.
With the painful grace of the laboring woman,
his head lifts back, face turning upward.
God, he says, a sign give Isaac.
Then he noticed it.
All day it swayed from the ceiling,
but as he watched, the string of dust
detached, and floated downward.
He started, rose, spine alive,
proud as a Rabbi,
arm out, palm up, like a flame.
Now, all light descends through cellar-windows.
Shoeless, we sit before blind mirrors,
eating the prayers of our grief.
And through the silence, we hear,
downstairs, the subway rumble,
and the cough of Jacob
A ROAD CAME ONCE, by Milton Kessler
Frontispiece by Ben Shahn.
Designed by P. David Horton.
The text of the poems is set in Fairfield; the display
matter in Deepdene, Lydian, Granjon, and Caslon Old
Style. Manufactured by the Kingsport Press, Inc.,
A road came once; main
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